Perhaps you are already a pro at using your scenic descriptions to create a tangible environment for your characters, but do you also use it to show your audience who those characters truly are?
by Margaret M. MacDonald.
Think of your home. Is it old or new? Bright or dark? Cluttered or clean? What would the objects around you tell a visitor about who you are?
You may think that putting some character into your scenic description simply means mentioning the baseball trophies and family photos on the mantle, but what surrounds your characters is only a small part of the defining portrait. Are the trophies polished to perfection or left to the cobwebs? Are the family photos proudly displayed, or hidden behind piles of unpaid bills?
Jack is less defined by his catalogue perfect apartment than he is by his condiment based dinner. His environment says one thing, while his actions say another. His full apartment is a facade for a man who is really as empty on the inside as his fridge. It’s not only your character’s environment but also how they interact with it that can show us who they are.
A Day in the Life
The majority of screenplays will start your protagonist off somewhere in the course of his daily life. It doesn’t matter if he lives in an urban apartment block or a derelict space station, the objects around him and the rhythm of his daily routine will show his character to the audience. Consider how well defined that daily routine would be if your protagonist was obsessive compulsive.
From the start of As Good As It Gets it’s clear that Melvin Udall, a man who throws dogs down garbage chutes and spouts racist remarks without skipping a beat, has a serious problem with people. But it’s not until we enter his apartment that we see how clinical his problem really is. His repetitive routine indicates a certain lack of control over his own behavior. We go from seeing Melvin as a man who deserves the disdain of his neighbors, to seeing him as a man who needs help and understanding.
Melvin, who was the monster attacking an innocent animal in the beginning of the film, is now the frightened animal himself. Once outside of the sanctuary of his home, the strength of his cantankerous attitude is sapped and his fears of the uncontrollable transform him. We learn as much about Melvin from his stockpile of soaps as we do from the change in his behavior from one environment to the next.
How does it Feel?
To a certain degree, your protagonist’s feelings about his environment will come out naturally in the storytelling process. If he is unhappy or content, restless or settled, at peace or at odds with society, his actions will show either his resistance or desire to change his current world. But how can you use the scenic description alone to portray your protagonist’s attitude?
Lester’s desire to remain in a dream state, and his clumsiness within his own bedroom indicate his discontent with his own life.
In addition to his actions, the description of his bedroom also portrays his underlying attitude. An expensive suburban house could be described as a warm welcoming place, but this bedroom is “decorated within an inch of its life.” This environment is presented as oppressive rather than opulent.
Even the choice to have Lester peer through wooden blinds presents the audience with an image of imprisonment. We don’t have to see Lester behaving as if he is trapped, the scenic description alone shows us that he is.
A Hint of Who
This passage from American Beauty also contains a great example of a vivid yet succinct character description. “Wide boyish face which is just beginning to droop around the edges” says nothing about Lester’s race, or build. It doesn’t give us an eye color, hair color, or anything else which would limit the scope of actors who can audition for the part. Yet, we still get a sense of not only what he looks like but also the personality behind the face.
Of course, some screenwriters choose to introduce their characters entirely as personalities rather than just with physical attributes, as Melvin is introduced in As Good As It Gets.
Both descriptions give us a pretty clear picture of our protagonists with an economy of words and without reading like a grocery list. Some would argue that we cannot immediately see that Melvin is “unliked, unloved” or “A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met” and that therefore his introduction violates the “show don’t tell” rule. That ongoing debate is for another article.
Transformed Character – Transformed Environment
Your protagonist’s environment is not only a powerful tool in telling us who they are, but it can also hint at who they become. You don’t need a musical montage showing your protagonist clearing the cobwebs off his trophies but as he is transformed by his experiences, so should his environment.
In Fight Club, Jack leaves the burning wreckage of his Ikea-filled apartment, for a run down house with no amenities. In American Beauty, Lester claims his own corner of the house, transforming the garage into a sanctuary for bench pressing and joint smoking. And in As Good As It Gets, Melvin finally conquers his fears.
-Margaret M. MacDonald
Margaret M. MacDonald is a production designer and award winning screenwriter. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York and currently Sydney. She aims to use both her writing and designing to create cinematic worlds. She also loves to discuss the past, present and future and filmmaking and isn’t afraid to disagree with you.